All Protection Is In Sound

March 1, 2014

This is nothing less than an enchantment of Irishness. Jennifer Walshe‘s Dordán made me feel my nationality in a rare way – not that I’ve anything against Ireland, just the useful/bothersome fiction of nationality.

The piece – the video here is of the Quiet Music Ensemble‘s 2013 Huddersfield Festival performance – takes an Adam Curtisian mode of collaged, text-led filmic narrative about two men, Pádraig and Caoimhín, each with their own experience of enchantment and of going beyond, and invests it with the mysteries of Mircea Eliade‘s arguments about magico-religious folk cultures and their ‘visionary trancing environments’. Dordán uses Walshe’s characteristically deconstructed toy theatre and strangely lyrical musics to place that kind of trancing in front of audiences, both as idea, in the text of the elliptical film, and as theatre, in the performance.

This is cultural archaeology (though all archaeology is cultural, so I don’t know what I mean by that) and enchantment on a grand scale, a mishmash synthesis where Irish dancing, trad performance and the landscape become magical sites, not the stodgy shibboleths of my youth, the latter through Caoimhín’s tellurian tapes, and the former through Pádraig’s droning pipes. It recovers and creates previously unknown histories, much like the ‘dissonant assembly’ of Elizabeth Price’s similarly archaeological The Woolworths Choir Of 1979, making connections across time to show us the importance of the visionary dimension – Eliade’s hierophanies – of experience.

If Price can win the Turner for Woolworths, surely Walshe deserves some kind of Irish equivalent for this?

Exaudi and Discrepant

January 7, 2014

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Couple of recent reviews…

Exaudi and Apartment House in Tempo (fancy new Tempo! – though still behind Cambridge UP paywall),

and Papillon (Discrepant) in the Quietus.

BEYONCÉ ALL ON YOUR MOUTH LIKE LIQOUR!

December 17, 2013

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We’re talking Pet Sounds and Smile. We’re talking Hard Day’s Night. We’re talking A Love Supreme. We’re talking Hounds of Love. We’re talking OK Computer. We’re talking Future Sexx/Love Sounds. BEYONCÉ is as sustained and powerful an achievement as any one of those albums. (That it knows it is, but that that doesn’t matter, is just one more reason to love it.)

BEYONCÉ is cohesive, but its cohesion is the collaged, underdetermined kind that pop music does so well. There is no single story or set of sounds or even monolithic biography integrating the album. Instead, a miasma of sounds and people and images and words and biographical snippets lend the album cohesion without reducing it to cohesion. From Jay-Z haunting the videos to the pervasive themes of performed sexual agency and feminine agency/feminism. From the repeated spoken samples taken from talent shows to the generic through-line of the songs. And from the lyrical idiom to the recurring sonic motif of the unexpected entrance of mixed-high whip-crack drum motifs on songs such as ‘Haunted’, ‘Mine’ and even ‘Blue’: BEYONCÉ invites engagement with it as a whole, without being pushy or overly self-conscious about that wholeness.

The event of the album—its shock release towards the end of a music year already settled into the idea of itself, a sudden release that sent much of the internet into convulsions due both to the basic shock of the release and to BEYONCÉ‘s unique character as a ‘visual album’—also contributes to the impression of cohesion. (Additionally, duh, the fact that pretty much every song maintains an incredibly high artistic standard within a tonally continuous context.)

So there is much cohesiveness here, but BEYONCÉ also enjoys the freedom that comes from not being tethered to the literalness of an overriding concept or narrative in the manner of more traditional concept albums.

The seemingly universal decision to see the cohesive ‘whole’ of BEYONCÉ in biographical terms, to see the album as a personal statement from Beyoncé’s deepest self to her audience, actually has a lot to recommend it. From the title’s programmatic wedding of the artist and the work to the importance of biographical signifiers on the album to the maternal lullaby of ‘Blue’ to the sudden release’s suggestion of the album coming unmediated from artist to audience, BEYONCÉ is as much an image of (a version of) Beyoncé herself as Pet Sounds is of (a version of) Brian Wilson.

However it would, I think, be a mistake to see BEYONCÉ purely or reductively in these biographical terms. For one thing, that kind of critical strategy is boring and limiting, tending to shut down interpretation when it should flower it. For another, various textual factors inevitably undermine the biographical reading – from Drake and Beyoncé’s seductive dance on ‘Mine’ to the obviously fictive scenario of many of the songs and videos, which include the beauty pageant of ‘Pretty Hurts’ and the jewelled and glacial horror of ‘Haunted’. The hidden labour of this album also needs to be considered, from the producers and writers (besides Beyoncé herself, who inarguably should be seen as the prime author of the album; but not the only author), to the directors of the videos, the fashion consultants, the choreographers, and so on. BEYONCÉ is an invitingly personal album, but it can’t be reduced only to the psychology and biography of its primary author. Similarly, Pet Sounds conveys something magical about childhood in America in the post-war era and about loss of innocence within that cultural context, but it can’t be reduced to a document of those things. As with the best art, BEYONCÉ plays on biography and narrative, hovering close to both without being reducible to either.

(Unlike a symphony, pop albums don’t need to be directed along one formal path or to be formed out of some grounding motives/motive force in order to secure cohesion; though of course symphonies are much more fragmented and formulaic than this gives them credit for. It is enough to plant seeds, to suggest binding themes and cross-references. This gives the audience freedom to read both their own selves into the biographical play and play of ‘authentic’ voices of pop albums, and to read cohesion and integrity into the [in reality] divergent and dissembled sounds/images/words of those albums.)

The other remarkable thing about BEYONCÉ—closely related to its ‘stacked’ cohesion—is that it introduces intermediality without being chained to it. This is a ‘visual album’ of 17 videos: the 14 songs, plus two separate videos for the first halves of ‘Haunted’ and ‘Partition’ (‘Ghost’ and ‘Yoncé’ respectively), and one superb video—the most wittily biographical of the lot—for ‘Grown Woman’. The wedding of the videos and songs creates a powerful, metatextual synthesis which demonstrates the power of images to reinscribe the meaning of sounds and sounds that of the images. However the modular nature of both the individual videos (which share some motifs but generally take place in very different visual worlds), and the contingent relationship of the sonic to the visual album, mean that the videos and songs can also be treated as being free and independent of each other if audiences want them to be.

So BEYONCÉ audio-visualises (to paraphrase Michel Chion) wonderfully, but it can also be heard as a conventional album based in sound. Unlike a sustained film with accompanying soundtrack, in the manner of Animal Collective’s ODDSAC, this is a modular audio-visual album that uses a novel model of textual production (notwithstanding similar previous examples such as Discovery). We are free to take the videos or leave them, but those videos—released in parallel with the songs as they were—are clearly of more central importance as components of the total album as videos for songs usually are, detached as those other videos invariably are from the total world of their albums.

That last point underlines the final aspect of the album that I want to discuss. BEYONCÉ is powerfully a declaration on behalf of the album as such. Even as it reinvents just what a pop album can be (both in terms of textual content and manner of release, the latter of which obviously contributes to the former), BEYONCÉ presents an argument on behalf of the album and against atomisation and song-based markets. Commercially and creatively, this is an album in the old tradition that is nevertheless delivered in the context of new traditions. It may well even be the last great album in the old mould, an inflecting point showing what can still be achieved in the medium whilst also arguing, through its very unusual nature, for the necessity of that medium’s reinvention. (Though that’s the kind of neat thing a critic would say.)

Anyway, those are some fairly initial thoughts. I could have written something like this the first day of BEYONCÉ’s release, but I wanted to wait at least a few days to absorb as fully as I could the experience of the whole thing, as well as to give my critical opinions at least some time to marinate.

So: ENJOY IT HUMANS FOR YOUR QUEEN* HAS SPOKEN!

(*it would be interesting to analyse the positioning of Beyoncé as perfect, royal body and artist; it’s not an unproblematic critical manoeuvre)

Decibel at King’s Place

March 27, 2013

I wrote a review of Decibel at King’s Place. Has contemporary notated music finally caught up with where it maybe would have been decades ago were it not for certain postwar ideologues!?

Beliebers and fan monocultures

March 7, 2013

I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Irish Times about Justin Bieber and his fans. I jotted down some notes for the interview…

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Bieber is really interesting because he and his audience embody aspects of the old and the new.

In one sense, the phenomenon of the ‘Beliebers’ (his fans) harks back to much older models of fan monocultures, from the Lisztomania of the 1840s to Beatlemania in the 1960s to the fans of bands like Take That and N-Sync in the 1990s. This kind of ‘monoculture’ shares some key characteristics with Hebdige’s seemingly anachronistic model of the subculture. Although the Beliebers aren’t united by their social class or by some sense of resistance to dominant ideologies (though we could talk about the latter) in the way that Hebdige’s subcultures were, they are nevertheless integrated and uniform in such a way as to suggest stable affiliation and on-going identification.

This kind of monocultural fandom allows individuals to posit themselves as being part of a community with shared tastes, affections, fashion sense, performative gestures (such as the shrine or the Twitter account dedicated to Bieber), and shared knowledge of codes and terms, all of which gets manifested and expressed in terms of competing expressions of cultural capital on message boards, forums, at concerts, and in other participatory contexts, e.g. You Tube videos or fan conventions or Bieber sightings (I found myself amidst one of these in Central London once – it was hilarious and fascinating). This monocultural framework allows fans to experience the self-in-process, where personal identity formation experiences itself as such, both in terms of individuation and sociality. Individuals can connect to something greater than themselves with the fan monoculture through an easily accessible repertoire of social codes and symbols, all launching off from the idea and image of Bieber and Bieberness.

The Beliebers’ kind of fan monoculture is also fairly anachronistic, however. Lots of cultural and social theorists came to reject the subculture because it didn’t capture the kinds of shifting allegiances common in the postmodern age. Instead, theorists like Michel Maffesoli came up with ideas such as the ‘neotribe’, where fandom and identity isn’t bound by geography, but instead sees people attempting to ‘recompose their social universe’ through things like the web, connecting by these sorts of means with other fans – of varying ages, ethnicities, genders, and so on – around the world.

As well as being unbounded by geography, these neotribes are unbounded by univocity. The people belonging to these postmodern neotribes are not beholden to them. Whereas in subcultures fandom is seen to be static, with members wearing only one mask, as it were, for the duration of their participation in that subculture, in recent decades, particularly since the ‘content’ and discursive/symbolic liberations of digital postmodernity (where identity hypertexts are soldered together from decades of present-at-hand pop ephemera and artefacts), individuals are understood to switch masks depending on the time of day or day of the week. I might listen to some Mego sound art one minute, the next be stoned by the colours of Enter the Void and a k-pop video the next, and then be reading a PDF of obscure occultural texts the next. Tomorrow would be the day for the Beatles…

The point is, due to digital ETEWAF culture, and still-present doubts about historical progress and epistemological stability, everything is permitted. (This applies across all levels of course, with artists and musicians themselves permitted to put on varying masks and uniforms as they see fit, as long as some guarantor or cue of authenticity is there.) It is rare for fans to subscribe to one ideology in the way that we see with the Beliebers…or is it? We can think of Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, Katy Perry’s Kitty-Kats, Boulez’s Ornery-Olds (ok, that one is made up)…whilst on the other hand, acknowledging that even if it seemed so in hindsight, 1960s fan culture, for one, was probably much less static than we would imagine. Maybe it is merely in the appearance of monoculture fandom that the Beliebers and others like them seem to recall earlier times, whereas in actuality those earlier times, as with now, probably saw just as much flightiness and tergiversation in fandom as postmodernity does. The difference is, that flightiness is now readily catered to by the tools and freedoms of digital culture.

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The newness that I mentioned at the start is evident in how Bieber seems to confuse notions of authenticity, or at least to manifest aspects of the flight from ‘authenticity’ currently taking place in popular music (though I have yet to be convinced that this re-configuration of what is authentic or not – where boybands are now allowed to be seen to be drinking and cavorting, for example – is anything other than an adaptation of capital to the market’s demands for a lip serviced greater transparency/modernity in its pop idols).

In many respects Bieber conforms to the older sense of an ‘authentic’ artist. He was discovered in a (albeit new, via YouTube) grassroots way; he played ‘real’ instruments; he wrote songs. But despite this, generally Bieber is seen as the acme of manufactured, commercial pop, since he makes pop music, has a feminised persona, and plays to largely female audiences.

However, this opposition between pop/authenticity no longer really holds, even if, as I said, cynical underpinnings might be read into the reconfiguraton of authenticity currently taking place. Everyone is part of the capitalist industry, and what ultimately matters now is success at all costs, style purity and ‘street’ credibility be damned. It’s no longer authorialsim, ‘real’ instruments, the album, or masculinity, which matter. Kylie, (new) Take That, Nicki Minaj and all pop have been taken to the centre of culture, whilst artists like Minaj have floating allegiances that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago, without the artist losing some credibility. Minaj and Ludacris can both collaborate with Bieber without suffering any loss of credibility. Keeping it real is now keeping it lucrative (though let’s not romanticise the past…)

Bieber himself, just like One Direction, collapses the traditional model of manufactured-into-’credible, mature’ artist, since even on his second album proper he had a hand in writing a lot of the songs, he has always collaborated with ‘cool’ hip hop artists, he was always covering credible tracks (and thus showing cultural knowledge), he was aping Timberlake from the get go (i.e. the ‘mature’ Timberlake), he has long had a slightly riské and sexualised image (not in the safe pre-teen sense), and he makes typically up-to-date mixed genre music…

And this ‘old and new’ blend is reflected in the music, as I just said. Whilst some trad pop is in evidence, particularly on the earlier stuff (‘Baby’, ‘Stuck in the Moment’), in the main this is whizz bang mixed genre stuff. You have 1990s throwbacks (‘Catching Feelings’, ‘Beautiful’ with Carly Rae Jepsen), but in the main you have things like dubstep influenced future (hip) pop (‘As Long as you Love Me’, ‘Beauty and a Beat’), and state of the art electronic pop with hip hop guests (All Around the World).

So, in terms of the music and the persona Bieber is a curious blend of old and new, even though he is seen by many as being very much in the mold of traditional idols, whilst his audience likewise manifests aspects of the old and the new in a curious admixture that’s hard to parse. More on this, I’m sure, later!

Taste, criticism, and the fallacy of cultural decline

February 1, 2013

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Most opinions and judgements about things seem to emerge from people’s basic ‘affective fields’, i.e. their basic core set of values and way of relating to the world. These ‘affective fields’, these basic conceptions about, for example, what is good and bad in art, are subject to change, of course, but this kind of mutation happens very slowly, through a process of attrition and composition, and over a long period of time. It is close to useless to present arguments against basic conceptions of value in art or morality that people hold to be instinctively true. The information and argument, if compelling, will of course go in, and may produce sudden, unexpected change, but more often than not people are simply looking for confirmation of their own values.

I’m going to talk here a little about why I think most people’s models of taste and critical judgement, so heavily based on these slow-changing models as they are, are wrong-headed (with many notable exceptions, of course, such as Film Crit Hulk, who says ‘never hate a movie!’)…with the understanding that, in spite of the possible merits of the argument, it will take more than that to produce change in the affective fields just discussed.

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I like all types of music, from all periods. I don’t dislike things more or less because they are e.g. ‘pop’ or ‘avant-garde’ or ‘salsa’. Music, like all art forms, needs to be judged on its own terms, as much as possible. In fact, for me, all expressions of taste made outside genre parameters – i.e. by someone who is also reviewing the genre in question, not just the piece under review and what it does to and within that genre – do not merit much attention as judgements on that piece, even if confrontations of this sort with alien values and expectations often produce interesting results in themselves. The most interesting and credible critical judgements, it seems to me, are offered by people versed in a particular art work’s genre context and frame of reference. This model of criticism, objective in its emphasis on parity but generously anti-objective in its call to specificity, reveals precise inventions and modulations and singularities of art works, in a way that a discussion of, say, a minimalist composition by Pierre Boulez misses completely what it is that makes that music interesting.

Criticism should be aware of genre pleasures and conventions, and attend to how the work (re)configures these. It should also draw itself outside these sorts of artistic contexts, both to examine the immediate social mediation of the work, and also to think about how the work escapes from these immediate contexts and mediations, how it might transcend or re-align them. So, think about how Tarantino is using postmodern film conventions of reference, parody, re-purpose and so on, think about the many genre worlds and thus pleasures he is playing with within the metagenre of postmodernism, but think also about the new contexts and discourses that are being created within each work. All art works exist in context and create a context.

In any case, antagonism between different taste models and art practices is undoubtedly healthy. It’s just that I seem to have been born without the ability to be discerning enough to dislike whole genres or eras or countries.

(How this squares with my political convictions is a bit of a moot point. If music genres are, indeed, as Ben Watson suggests, ‘echoes of class struggle’, then what on earth does it mean that, as someone who thinks Marxism provides the only sensible framework for understanding ideology and political economy in Western culture, I worryingly subscribe to a friction-free, even nihilistic liberal pluralism in the realm of art? I’m not sure how to answer that, other than to suggest meekly that my all-is-good approach might be seen as a kind of liberal radicalism (after David Clarke), where Enlightenment values (high/low, West/the rest) are rejected, and art is seen as a kind of tension-filled ‘space of exception’, where people manifest something like a version of the best of themselves. Foucault’s ‘equality of worth’ value-pluralism is relevant here.)

The fallacy of cultural decline

I say all this because I want to outline something quite basic, which intersects directly with my own value-pluralist ‘affective field’. Many people subscribe to the notion of cultural decline. We’re all familiar with this way of viewing the world. ‘Music was much better in my day’. ‘They don’t make films like they used to’. ‘Kids these days…’. These kinds of attitudes are not only fucking pathetic, but they are profoundly stupid and ungenerous. Whilst I admit that my liberal radicalism (everything is probably good on its own terms) is clearly open to critique, and that it might endorse a worryingly nihilistic model of cultural production, I would insist that a more limited sense of evolving, and open-to-all, value, is imperative for anyone wanting to be critically sharp to any great extent…

For it is never art that gets worse, but YOU! It’s not that the music or films that happened to be being made when you were young (what a coincidence that would be) were somehow the best, it is that, as a lot of people must of course be aware, your standards of what is good, what is ‘the best’, were defined by that art. Taste is not a unidirectional process directed at stable art entities existing outside time. Art works mediate and produce the very frameworks of judgement in which they are judged.

Now, I can’t provide a watertight argument to support these claims. They are, largely, instinctual. But
perhaps a basic (kind of) syllogism will help clarify my thoughts here:

1. Our concept of what is ‘good’ in art is closely linked with the art that we like, and the art that we grew up with is often the art we like. Taste is circular.

2. When ‘new’ art comes along that seems to be doing very different things to what we previously considered ‘good’ (e.g. not using ‘real’ instruments, as if acoustic guitars aren’t as much of an artefactual technology as samplers are, or e.g. using (pan)diatonic harmonies and repetitive structures in 1970s composition, as if those ingredients ‘naturally’ go against what is ‘progressive’ in music), we think that that art is ‘bad’, because it doesn’t square with what we think is good. Instead of trying to ‘upgrade’ our concept of what is good and bad, instead of trying to be generous by getting inside genre worlds and seeing what they have to offer in terms of internal dynamism and productive cross-genre tension, we hold onto what seem to be ‘objective’, natural standards, but which are of course, historical, conventional standards. Taste is circular, and this often leads to a rejection of the new, speaking both in terms of avant-garde and popular forms.

3. It is not art that is wrong (for there is always a moral underpinning to these kinds of judgements), but YOU. (Or, if not wrong, then not fair, generous, or interesting.) The new is nowhere near as bad as people seem to be claiming it is. It is probably quite interesting, and even spectacular.

History provides support for this last conclusion. They said that,

-Picasso couldn’t draw.
-Beethoven had gone mad.
-Joyce was nonsensical.
-pop music was all the same.
-films weren’t the same once they became ‘talkies’.
-modernism was elitist, emperor’s new clothes bullshit.
-postmodernism was completely bankrupt and devoid of concreteness.
-Machaut was too radical.
-Opera would never work.
-Black Sabbath made stupid, unedifying, boring, dirge-like music.
-‘Dancing Queen’ was not the greatest thing ever.

Think of any art movement or artist, and they will have inevitably been condemned as worthless at some point. But, the good old days are always with us!

Now, it may be falsely inductive to conclude from this that everything condemned as uninteresting is interesting, but I think it’s just too enticing to look at these examples, see how in each case the original judgements were proved to be without much merit, and finally to end up on the side of the art itself. And so I do.

Second syllogism:

1. If art has always been good, notwithstanding more fruitful periods and artists,
2. And new art has often been rejected, invariably for its simplifying tendencies,
3. Then we should remember history’s lessons, and realise that we need to invent new critical categories to keep up with the art.

What basis does this leave us for presenting negative judgements about art works? Plenty; I’m not arguing against specific, localised moments of judgements, once these are informed by the work’s context and genre world (etc.). What I’m arguing against is the prejudicial judgement of art outside its context (musical or otherwise), and the anachronistic notion that culture can decline. Of course, the sun may not rise tomorrow, Jupiter may disappear in an instant, the laws of nature may indeed descend into a jubilant hyperchaos. In this respect, culture can of course decline. But it probably won’t.

Beyoncé, song-videos, and bodies

January 30, 2013

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So, this may be slightly out of left field, but here are my top eleven Beyoncé tracks! I’ll save you remonstrations about the subjectivity and limitations of lists – this is just a list of my favourite Beyoncé songs, ordered according to my taste, and my mood as I write.

Basically, it’s an excuse to talk about one of my favourite artists, Beyoncé Knowles. I consider her solo music and her work with Destiny’s Child as equally applicable here.

(The first entry is much, much longer than any other.)

1. Single Ladies

Single Ladies, the song and the video, is one of the greatest art works of the twenty-first century. If Mark Fisher can claim the same of Billie Jean and the twentieth century, then I have grounds to do so with this.

I say song and video for two reasons.

First, it’s fair to say that contemporary pop videos are, in a lot of cases, almost as an important component part of textual meaning production as songs ‘themselves’. In other words, often videos of songs are as responsible for producing affect in relation to our experience of different tracks, as the sound of the music is. This is less the case now, of course (though plenty of other textual discourses mediate the meaning of music, for example the atmosphere and social codes in a club when we see a DJ, or the dress and behaviour of conductors when we see a symphony, or the acting of the performers in an opera, etc.), but videos are still key to a lot of songs’ impact. Try to imagine ‘Thriller’ at a remove from its video, or ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, or ‘Gangnam Style’…it’s hard to believe that these songs would have had anything like the same impact if they had been released in an era without videos. (Admittedly this is in many respects a nonsensical thought experiment, since these pieces are more song-videos than songs, and as such it’s unfair to amputate them and then ask, ‘are they whole’?) The video of ‘Single Ladies’, needless to say, is fairly central to its production of affect/pleasure, offering narration and possible recoding of some of the song’s ideas.

Second, it is the case that Beyoncé is an especially bodily performer. I wrote an article which, essentially, substituted ‘Beyoncé’ as the subject into Foster-Wallace’s ‘Federer as Religious Experience’, where the writer had tried to get to grips with his sense that watching Roger Federer gives us of being not only embodied creatures, but also that those bodies are capable of amazing feats of proprioceptive kinaesthetics. Beyoncé does a similar thing: her performances are a channel to magical thinking, trafficking in the most bewildering feats of vocal/movement signifyin’ as they do. Sit and watch her Glastonbury show, and bathe in the spectacle of our generation’s James Brown, one of the greatest live performers of recent times, and the teacher of sublime lessons of embodiment and joy. Considering all this, it makes sense that with this, her most ‘iconic’ of videos (and I mean that term in both of its senses), I would place it pretty much on a level with the song as analytical text.

So, why exactly do I find this song-video so interesting?

First off, it’s so joyous. It’s hard to make joyous music, to achieve that effect of being light-on-your-feet and exuberant, without coming across as being either cloying or self-conscious. ‘Single Ladies’ is neither of those things; it is genuine and generous in its joy.

It is also, like very little music out there, complex in its simplicity, and simple in its complexity. Its sonic palette is limited to some repeating percussion sounds, harmonised voice/s, little touches of synth and synth bass at certain points, and some whishing and blorping sound effects. The only other recent (hit) track to be so sonically sparing, so Kurtagian or Webernian (at least in this respect), is Nicki Minaj’s ‘Beez in the Trap’. The extravagance of this reductionism crosses over into the realm of the avant garde…

…The voice moves spritefully around an E major scale, shifting vividly into the parallel minor for the bridge (‘Don’t treat me to things of this world…’). A kick drum beats out a simple syncopated repeated pattern (semi-quaver/dotted quaver, crotchet, dotted quaver/semi-quaver, rest), whilst a light clapping sound in quavers repeats throughout. The synth pops in with a slightly dissonant B-C, B-A X2 motif on the repeat in each chorus, and does similar enough things in the bridge. That’s about it. There are no harmonic instruments, and the melodic ones, outside the voice/s, are simply the touches of synth. There are also no pads for the ear to latch on to, and to ground the track in some sort of sonic/harmonic context. It’s all rhythm and voice here, with simple interlocking parts building into a glorious groove, and the FX giving the track a sense of light, estranging, future shock.

This is all to the good, but the video itself, the voguing hand move, the Astaire and Fosse-inspired dancing threesome, the frankly sexual and thrusting hip revolution as the body moves to the ground, and the feet and fist stomp that is everybody’s favourite dance move – these are all essential to our sense of ‘Single Ladies’ as being a piece of joy and of joy-making power, made of sound, song, dance and visuals, that is unparalleled.

Now, finally, to the lyrics and the apparent ‘message’ or metameaning. There is a cocktail of signs and codes in this song-video, and I don’t want to spend too much more time unpacking them. Suffice it to say, I don’t think the seemingly conventional interpretation of the song – that it is a tribute to heterotraditional marriage, which seemingly endorses men’s role as agents, and women’s as objectified (‘it’) property, is plausible. Sure, that’s somewhere in there, and I can see why people might take it that way, but the situation is much complex than that. For example; why on earth is Beyoncé wearing a robot hand on her ‘wedding’ hand? Why, if the song is purportedly endorsing a traditional, property-based view of marriage, does Beyoncé sing in the bridge, often the moment of narrative resolution in pop songs:

‘Don’t treat me to these things of the world
I’m not that kind of girl
Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve
Is a man that makes me then takes me
And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond
Pull me into your arms
Say I’m the one you want
If you don’t, you’ll be alone
And like a ghost I’ll be gone’?

It’s Her Factory has a really interesting reading of the track, in fact, which picks up on these two elements. For her, ‘Single Ladies’ is an ‘Afrofuturist feminist critique of heterosexual courtship’. The robotic sound effects of the song, the small baby robots crying for attention, point up the cyborgian codes of the text. The robot hand, in this reading, represents the kind of property-relation that women have historically been subjected to within marriage and patriarchal structures more generally. Women, here, equate to robots. Beyoncé is lampooning this kind of relation and idea, offering instead an alternative vision of love as being more important than property:

‘Instead of humanist marriage, Beyoncé says she wants an extraterrestrial relationship, one that, like Buzz Lightyear, can transport her offworld, “to infinity and beyond!” Preferring robots and extraterrestrials to traditional hetero-capitalist gender roles, “Single Ladies” uses Afrofuturism to queer white heteropatriarchy’.

Now, I don’t fully go along with this reading, since it needs to privilege some elements over others, such as the general interpretation of the song, which counts, and the bridge lyrics over those of the verse, which would by contrast seem to give credence to the view that lyrics should be taken as more of a straightforward narrative. The reading, then, privileges some elements, whilst also being somewhat over-certain of the veracity of its own perspective. So, whilst instinctively I would go along with the feminist Afrofuturist take, and would point out that the more general affective feel here, so important to whatever political meaning audiences take from things, is of a very strong and gifted woman being owned by no one but herself and her own talent (despite the amount of clothes she’s wearing, which isn’t a problem to me, but is to others, though that’s another debate entirely), I don’t think the evidence is quite there to support the feminist Afrofuturist reading fully. (Although, of course, seeing the lyrics and song as operating within a kind of ‘double utterance’ signifyin’ space seems perfectly credible, where the verse simply narrate a different perspective to the chorus/bridge; this would open the interpretation out to even more complexity and to a bit of ambiguity.)

In any case, I’ve rabbited on for far too long. Suffice it to say, ‘Single Ladies’, with its joyous funk-cyborg complexity in simplicity, is one of my favourite things ever

2. Independent Women

This was the first moment when I really took notice of Beyoncé as Beyoncé. Though it has that slightly questionable girl power feel in its lyrics (gender positive lyrics are all very well, but song lyrics will make little but a jot of difference in terms of productive resistance to structural oppression), the song itself is wonderful, with its, once again, funk bass pushing against all the other elements, its really effective and punchy use of each member and each moment of its form, and its glorious, a capella bridge.

3. Sweet Dreams

There’s a bit of the case of the ‘Single Ladies’ about this one, in that that fantastic arm-on-upper torso gesture (on ‘my guilty pleasure’) in the video really lifts an already inspired piece of music into virtuosic body-knowing. The song itself, well it’s all about that glamouring bass/drum/voice tattoo heard right at the beginning…

4. Halo

This could be piffle, with its ‘inspiring’ lyrics, its trite chords, and its somewhat unadventurous (though effective) arrangement, but in B’s* hands it’s gold. It’s all to do with the voice, about which I haven’t actually said that might thus far. What is remarkable about Beyoncé’s voice, I think, apart from its general trenchancy and dexterousness in terms of basic R&B and ballad voice production, is the almost unmatched technical polish and control it achieves within the most fervent of emotional, upper-register climaxes. Whether we’re talking about a throat-tearing futuR&B whizz bang effort like ‘Single Ladies’ or an old school banger like ‘Déja Vu’, or a ballad like ‘Listen’, there are usually moments where at its very top, where other singers would switch to head voice, if they even could maintain intonation and pitching, Beyoncé sticks with her growling chest voice, bringing the listener along into a body-affect of the most thrilling intensity and heft. You can hear it a bit in the live performance above of ‘Halo’, but I would recommend going to the bridge of Déja Vu, the ‘ yeah, yeaaaaaah’ of ‘Get me Bodied’, or just watch that bloody Glasto performance, for illustration of what I mean.

If you watched the most recent series of X Factor, you will have seen a similar enough thing with James Arthur, though he’s not quite at her level just yet.

5. Get me Bodied

Banger! The title could be taken as a manifesto for B and her work…

6. Déja Vu

The first single and opener of B’s second album, B’Day, which might be her best single work in this medium (though all of her albums are a little inconsistent). Another astonishing vocal performance here, this time in the context of 1970s funk updated with some splashes of modern colour and a great intro/verse from Jay Z. But what really makes the song stand out is its array of amazing little details, from the subtle syncopations of the anchoring bass, to B’s voice on the structurally very interesting extended bridge after the rap section, to the wonderful rhythmic displacement that happens when Jay Z says ‘Cause you gon’ need help tryna study my bounce, flow, blow’, where the expected rhyming pattern and stress cycle of the rap suddenly moves, on ‘bounce’, from a set of firm downbeat, downbeat, downbeat accents, on to an hilariously and confusingly syncopated stress.

7. Listen

Beyoncé’s performance of this song – which was shoehorned into Dreamgirls and added to B’Day as a bonus track – with Alexandra Burke in the final of X Factor (above), needs to be seen to be believed. It’s that voice, again, which pushes the thing, which at bottom is a solid and well put together ballad, into really interesting and moving territory.

8. Bootlyicious

Holy hell this is a lot fun…Though it doesn’t quite supersede its Stevie Nicks source (a Nicks top ten would probably be lot of fun), this song is seared into my mind as a carrier of a part of 2001…

9. Love on Top

Well, this is just something else entirely. Girl group and early-1990s R&B pastiche of the most thrilling and effective kind, this is the kind of song that saves lives. Honestly, I can’t really marshal too many words as to why this brutally simple song – the chord sequence, for one, is profoundly trite – has such a powerful effect on me, other than to say that the kind of sonic space it conjures up hits straight at the heart of so much about music that was current when I was at a, let’s say ‘impressionable’ age, and, secondly, that its incredibly cheeky use of an ever-rising key modulation scheme, going up and up and up and up once more, reminds me of something Brian Wilson would do, and did do, after a fashion. Also, B’s voice, as the chord platform is rising, just crushes it.*

10. Countdown

The estranging elements of the song were said to attract ‘hipsters’, but it’s the melding of head-spinning and twirling neo-soul arrangement and form, a great vocal performance, the typically endearing lyrics, and the queer hook of the countdown itself, that sell it for me. The video is a work of majesty, too, though I won’t really discuss it here, since it came along long after I had processed and enjoyed the song.

11.Irreplaceable

Girl Power! I know what I said earlier about these kinds of lyrics, but there’s a part of me that just eats this stuff up. In any case, this skews to the pop end of Beyoncé’s output, but gloriously so. Notable are rather elegant narrative construction of the lyrics, the simplicity of the music and its ‘to the left’ hook, and the especially impressive modulation of the vocal performance, which slowly becomes more expansive in terms of ornament and decoration, and more intensely extrovert in terms of its strength; cf. ‘I could have another you’, which starts out falsetto, and ends howl.

*Honourable mentions to ‘Say my Name’, ‘Crazy in Love’, and this live performance of ‘Run the World’.

*It will be noted that I skew to Beyoncé’s second and third albums here. Whilst I really liked 4, I felt it lacked anything of the calibre of ‘Single Ladies’ or even ‘Déja Vu’, though songs like ‘Countdown’, ‘Love on Top’, ‘End of Time’, and others, aren’t in fairness all that far off…

*Please excuse my embarrassing use of this shorthand.

*And this term.

Thanks for reading!

Pop: Louder and Blander?

December 6, 2012

I wrote an article months ago responding to a much-discussed paper from Scientific Reports that seemed to evidence pop’s homogenisation. The paper was jumped upon by gleeful journalists glad to have some sort of evidential backing for their own views on pop. In any case, my response was finally published at the Quietus (an amazing place well worth visiting regularly!)…

Music and dramatic diachrony

November 21, 2012

I re-read some of Kofi Agawu’s Playing with Signs the other day. Whilst discussing ‘extroversive semiosis’, i.e. ‘topics’ – expressive content in ‘Classic’ music, whose discursive character and significance, like all signs, emerges from perceiver competence, and evolves over time depending on what Agawu calls the ‘listening/sound environment’ (which was shared by composers and listeners alike in the eighteenth century; a sociocultural, normative ‘meaning context’ for the basic structural rhythms and properties of musical pieces) – Agawu makes a basic point very well.

Counterposing his own topical method of suggestive and interpretative (not exhaustive), narrative topical analysis with motivic analysis of the absolute, intra-musical kind, Agawu points out that motivic analysis is all very well, but that failing to account in even a superficial way (and in this respect Agawu’s analysis is self-consciously superficial) for the referential basis of this music (described contemporaneously in terms of ‘expression’, ‘character’, ‘style’), which as Agawu shows through analysis of both eighteenth century writings and musical pieces was at the centre of how both audiences and composers conceived and conceptualised, and thus on the part of the composers composed, this music, consigns motivic analysis not only to a solipsistic frame, but also to a synchronic, profoundly inadequate mode of investigation. Contrary to what most implicitly claim on behalf of this kind of analysis, musical conventions are not synchronous and meaningless; their sociocultural, processual basis is one their most interesting aspects. Topical analysis, amongst other things, allows the analyst to account in part for the ‘historical specificity’ of musical syntax, thus locating the music’s syntax in a historical continuum. Agawu has a wonderful line here: ‘the idea that syntax exists in a timeless, synchronic dimension seems unduly facile’ (41). Even if motivic analysts do situate their findings in some kind of historical frame (which, at the level of individual and fairly anonymous motives, would be particularly difficult), they miss what is fundamentally interesting about motives; their rhetorical function and significance.

Motivic and other formalistic methods of analysis not only compress music’s diachrony into an artificial, ahsitorical synchrony, they miss the fundamentally human drama happening at the music’s surface and, by recursion, thus deep in its structural background. As Agawu suggests, speaking specifically of his analysis of Mozart’s K.332 sonata, ‘by empirically locating the content of Mozart’s sonata in an eighteenth century sound environment, {he has} provided a point of departure for making sense of that eloquent and richly diversified drama’ (48).

Of course, the common response – of Charles Rosen, for example – that none of the formalistic theorists ever actually held that music emerges in a vacuum, but instead merely adopt this bracketing attitude in order to see what results they can get, is fatuous; if these theorists do not account for context and historical evolution in its fullest sense in their theory, then that theory has to be judged as woefully inadequate, since it cannot even account for the basic referential dimensions of music, let alone model in any meaningful way music’s diachronic, normative historical development as a dramatic, meaningful form.

This music, as with later forms of classical and even popular music, is ahistoricised by synchronic and non-referential analysts of design and motive not as a result of deeply held analytical convictions about what is at stake in discussions of music, but rather simply so analysts would not have to build music into its proper sociocultural context. Music, conceived in a vacuum, could submit to positivistic analysis and would yield replicable, seemingly rigorous results. This was lazy scholarship, essentialising a musical form(at) in order that it could be artificially analysed as a self-complete, intra-conceptual (at best) piece of data. ‘Music’ here emerges as a polemical, malingering coldness, set against its proper proliferatory, hybridic nature. This is of course hardly news, but its bold-faced cheek deserves all the opprobrium it gets! And, I’m not suggesting for a moment that ‘cold’ analysis does not produce interesting results – it does, even if they’re onanistically-inclined – but this kind of absolutist approach becomes deeply problematic when it is conceptualised as a totalising system.

Bernhard Gander, One Direction, and ‘Authenticity’

November 13, 2012

It is common knowledge that ‘authenticity’ is perhaps the most important of the mediating discourses through which musicians/music become associated with different types of meaning and value. Although something like genre discourse is as pervasive as authenticity, its impact is a little more restricted and formalistic – attribution or use of genre labels is rarely as heated or as libidinal an exercise as are struggles over authenticity/credibility/realness (to put some contextual meat on the term’s bones).

Authenticity is important, then. But it is also processual and dynamic. Just as particular artists’ authenticity shifts over time, so do the parameters and contexts of authenticity itself. It used to be (I use the past tense here more aspirationally than in any other respect) that in mainstream western classical music, for example, authenticity was measured in terms of ‘originality’ and ‘innovation’ – in short, was measured according to the floating yardstick of ‘genius’. That is not quite the case today. It also used to be the case that conductors and musicians thought that they could most vividly resuscitate older music by locating through performative interpretation the emotional ‘truth’ of their own ages, as signified through recognisable music-emotional tropes of ‘intensity’ and ‘passion’ (=big orchestras and heavy vibrato), in that earlier music. This is also not the case today – the HIP movement of the 1970s put an end to such ‘romanticism’, replacing it with a modernistic version of positivistic romanticism.

In popular music, it used to be the case that ‘authenticity’ was aligned with ‘real’ instruments, authorialism, albums, and masculinity. Men were rock, women pop. Men made and wrote albums, women (and feminised boys) sang singles. This is not quite the case today. The growth of sampladelic hip hop, built on Roland and Akai samplers and drum machines and out of appropriated musical material from the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the emergence of electronic, acousmatic music of acts such as the Chemical Brothers in the 1990s, slowly put paid to myths built around equations like the following: acoustic=intimate=authentic. The ‘contamination anxiety’ (Lethem) that dominated popular and classical music slowly broke down in the face of postmodernist ‘sublimated collaboration’, which in any case had been pre-echoed earlier in the century by Dadaism, musique concrète, and many other important fugitive movements of appropriation.

In recent years, as postmodernism has accelerated into various crisis stages of disillusionment and collapse, even the hoary old rejection of ‘inauthentic’ pop music, built on Adornian and Marxian notions of ‘alienation’ and ‘standardisation’, has spunked its rhetorical load. Residual anxiety remains for some – seen in the comically anachronistic opposition of ‘manufactured’ and ‘authentic’ made by Matt Cardle, of all people, recently – but in the main audiences seem to have embraced pop unironically. At least to the degree that ‘Call me Maybe’, ‘Superbass’, and other songs are taken to the centre of culture, and acts such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyonce are given more respect than they would have been twenty years ago. (HOWEVER, that is of course not to deny the sputtering and impotent rage directed at these acts on YouTube comment boards and other discursive nether regions.) Left secessionism of the sort that sees all popular culture as being equally co-opted by destructive forms of ideological and politico-economic capture, and as such endorses complete rejection of and withdrawal from that culture, has thankfully given way to a more internally dynamic, mobile view, where popular culture is not seen as a corrupted monolith, but instead as a terrain to be fought over.

These changes lead me to ask the rather pompously put question; whither authenticity in 2012, 2013, 2014, and beyond? Composers such as Bernhard Gander and Seán Clancy (and, of course, many others) attempt to move beyond the polystylism and quotational practices of earlier figures, by embedding popular culture into the distributed networks (as opposed to centralised hierarchies) of their creative practices. Authenticity, here, becomes a somewhat redundant critical category.

What about boybands? Take That and One Direction provide salutary case studies in this regard. In the 1990s, as the group reached a commercial and critical peak, Robbie Williams absconded from Take That. Many will be familiar with the story. Sick of what he saw as the tackiness and artificiality of boyband music, like George Michael before him, Williams struck out into the much more culturally ‘valuable’ world of getting drunk with Oasis and writing sickly masterpieces such as ‘Angels’ (to be fair, Williams has made some excellent music as a solo artist). This sort of ‘evolution’ became a canonical narrative of the young, ‘manufactured’ pop star. At a certain point in their career, most pop acts have sought credibility of this fetid kind.

My argument here is that, with the changes surveyed above, this ‘escape into authenticity’ is no longer a viable or even useful option for artists. Even Williams ended up getting back with Take That; Kylie went back to her pop roots. With One Direction, it has never really made sense to try to place them into the canonical narrative of manufactured objects-into-creative subjects. Even as a silly recent article discusses the ‘seven ages of boybands’ - not noticing the key internal contradiction that the act that served as organising metaphor, One Direction, already break apart the typology, since members can already be seen to be sporting tattoos and having affairs and getting drunk, even though they are at most in the prime of their ‘imperial stage’ - we must acknowledge that, as with composers of notated music, the mediating discourse and the mythic narratives that have governed these music cultures in the past are being overwritten by new narratives (even notions of good/bad are becoming ever harder to parse), just as Niall Horan’s voice must be getting continually overwritten in American recording studios by mechanised versions of the same.


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